It's been a long time since I did one of these posts and unlike Deus Ex I didn't stop at a natural break in the story, so it seems like a recap might be useful.
I started by describing the setting and such. Like various other science fiction things the exact date of the setting doesn't match the intent of the setting, which is to say the date of the setting is meant to be the not too distant future, but since time has passed since the series was made that future is, datewise, now past. And passed. And if your accent is like my own those two words sound similar.
Fortunately, the show never actually references dates, beyond general generational pop culture knowledge ("Oh, your mother liked those movies, so she's probably about my age," and the like.) Thus the show isn't as dated as various other elements of the franchise and I'm taking the series as a thing in itself, not an element of a larger framework that you have to read watch and play six thousand things to understand with layers of retcons and whatnot.
While I will occasionally mention, "This is clearly set up for the games to come later," for the most part I'm treating the series as if it is the only thing that exists.
And with that I started to tackle the series:
Episode One: Role Play
I spent an entire post talking about what happens in the show before the first words are spoken because it layers on things that should be impossible. Most of the show takes place inside an online game where the experience is audio and visual. It's not the Matrix where your senses all tell you you're inside the virtual world, it's a much simpler system than that.
The exact details of the control interface aren't clear, nor are they particularly important, but there is some evidence to suggest that input includes facial expression and possibly how tightly you're gripping the controller.
When it comes to output, on the other hand, it's much clearer. Sound, video. The same as video game today. No touch, no kinesthesia, no pain, no smell.
And you're never really inside the game when it comes to your bodily functions, if you reach up to touch your head you'll touch your head in the real world, not in the game.
This is important to know because for the main character, Tsukasa, none of it is true. Which is, of course, impossible. The show begins with him regaining consciousness within the game, that makes no sense as nothing in the game should have caused him to lose consciousness. But more than that he does it with sounds of pain, he shouldn't be feeling pain.
As he gets up dazed and confused he feels the sliminess of the ground, he shouldn't be feeling anything. When he reaches to touch his head, he touches not his head in the real world, but his character's head in the game.
All of this is wrong. It might be argued, probably persuasively, that the show shouldn't begin showing us how things aren't supposed to be when it hasn't given us a baseline of how things are supposed to be to measure it against. But there is also an argument to be made that this is exactly where the show should start. The show is the story of Tsukasa, touching on the larger goings on of the game only insofar as they affect Tsukasa and Tsukasa affects them.
It's the story of the wrongness on display here, and while a disoriented Tsukasa picks himself off of the ground here he might not realize it's wrong any more than the first time viewer.
Anyway, that silence can't last forever and soon another character walks into the story. Which gave me an opportunity to talk about the fact that at this stage Tsukasa is afraid of everything and everyone. Each encounter he has will begin with him reacting in fear. Flinching away from the newly arrived/announced person as if they're going to hurt him.
After running away he contemplates his situation elsewhere but is soon interrupted by swordsmen in armor. It gave me the opportunity to talk about destiny and meetings, the Crimson Knights (a self appointed police force within the game), the CC corporation (the company that runs the game), differences in translation (I eventually decided to go with the subtitles and only mention the dub if it contained something interesting), and so forth.
Tsukasa flees the knights and bumps into the first person he met, Mimiru, again. They have a conversation where they talk passed each other, and Tsukasa shows his first indications of realizing something is wrong. He's been confused and uncertain before, but this is the first time he seems to realize something is wrong. He tries to log out, he fails. And that simple fact, that he is unable to log out, will be what the whole series is based on. He says something insulting to Mimiru and runs away.
At that point there are some more introductions but first Tsukasa lets off steam by messing with the game. First by having a transport (a furry mini-hippo called a grunty) run into walls, then by attacking an NPC water spirit he's meant to talk to. At around that time Bear tries to say, "Hello," but Tsukasa runs away (This makes three parties he's met: Mimiru, a group of Crimson Knights, and Bear) and three times he's responded by running away.
After Tsukasa is gone BT, who Bear had been working with before he stepped out for the break in which he met Tsukasa, shows up. She's pissed at him for stepping out but it turns out that everything worked out fine.
Then the story cuts to Venice (Mac Anu) where Subaru, leader of the Crimson Knights, is talking to the head knight Tsukasa ran from earlier about some big shots in the game (Orca and Balmung) who are looking into some concerning activity which they haven't given any details about. Subaru has similar concerns.
The conversation is cut short when the knight, Silver Knight, sees Tsukasa who runs away.
After another failed attempt to log out Tsukasa asks Mimiru if she's able to. Her response is that not only is she able to, she has.
This leads to a conversation between Tsukasa and Mimiru in which, after Mimiru mentions that he can log out by just resetting his terminal, Tsukasa goes into utter panic. Mimiru manhandles him in a way you would never treat someone in the real world unless you're Edward Cullen. If Mimiru were aware that Tsukasa could feel pain I think she'd be horrified by her actions, but as far as she knows there's nothing wrong with it because it's a game where such concerns don't matter.
She then, loudly, articulates the theory of internet interaction I have argued for here: what you do to real people is real. Being an internet asshole is in no way distinct from being a real life asshole because in both cases the people you are being an asshole to are real people.
The conversation ends badly, and Tsukasa gets slapped in the face and is left on the verge of tears not understanding why it hurt.
In the next Tsukasa scene you learn what threw him into a panic: he isn't in front of a terminal. This is the opposite of possible, this makes no sense. This should not be. But before you get to that there's a short interlude with Subaru, the Silver Knight, and a bystander. He reports that his friend got an item that corrupted data from a character that had obviously been altered, for it had the face of a cat. That character, Macha, is the reason that the Crimson Knights came looking for Tsukasa earlier, as the only information they have on it is that it was seen with Tsukasa.
Tsukasa himself makes his way back to the spot where he woke up at the beginning of the episode. As noted he has come to the realization that he's not in front of a terminal. This is, of course, impossible. It also means that the methods of exiting the game are closed to him. He's already tried the standard way, and he can't pull the plug.
It also leaves the question of where he is. Not his character, his real life body. Or maybe it does make sense to ask about the character since the character shouldn't be in a place where it can feel pain, pain has not been programmed into the game.
Regardless, he goes back, back to the beginning. He has a flash of a memory of something painful that he doesn't understand happening to him, and then Macha shows up.
Macha, a floating cat in a pointy hat floats over the treasure chest, licks it, and then floats upward and disappears leaving Tsukasa unsure of what to do. When he opens the chest a disembodied female voice says... a pack of lies. That she's been waiting for a long time, that she'll protect Tsukasa always, that sort of thing.
On his way out, Tsukasa is intercepted by the Silver Knight. Tsukasa is fast in combat, but he is no match for the Sliver Knight's strength and ends up smashed up against a wall so hard he's immobilized by the pain. The Silver Knight demands Tsukasa get up, Tsukasa uselessly reaches for his staff, the Silver Knight started to charge her and -- I feel like I'm the grandfather from The Princess Bride. The Guardian, a strange seemingly gelatinous creature that isn't in the manual and assumes a barbell shape once it's finished coming through the wall and materializing, knocks the Silver Knight to the ground.
Silver Knight gets up, the Guardian shoots a spike of itself through the Silver Knight, the Silver Knight tries to block it but it's useless as the spike goes right through his sword. The Silver Knight is killed in a way that resembles the unspecified painful thing that happened to Tsukasa in his flash of memory.
The Guardian then sniffs a terrified Tsukasa, gives a sort of whale call, and disappears. Tsukasa correctly connects the Guardian to the promise of protection, and we next see him at Mac Anu.
Tsukasa is thinking over the situation. He's come to terms with the fact that he appears to be stuck, now he has to decide where to go from there. And what he decides is, more or less, that the real world sucks, he likes it this way, and it's not so bad being trapped inside a game.
Cut to the real world where a young woman is lying unconcious on the ground (in the same position Tsukasa was when he first appeared on screen) and an ambulance freshly arrived on the scene. The shots of this the timing of it, so forth, all indicate that the young woman is Tsukasa in the real world, but whether or not it is will be played with for a while yet to come. For example in the very next episode we'll know that the Silver Knight's player was found unconscious in front of his terminal, so maybe the young woman is the Silver Knight (she isn't, she's Tsukasa.)
At this point we've met most of the characters:
- Tsukasa - Shy, depressed and traumatized teenager stuck in the game.
- Mimiru - Not-shy, not-depressed and not-traumatized teenager who was first to meet Tsukasa in the game and takes things seriously online.
- Bear - A man who tends to help newbies.
- BT - A woman who we haven't had much chance to get to know yet
- Subaru - The woman who co-founded and runs the Crimson Knights
- Silver Knight - Apparently Subaru's second in command.
- Macha - A floating cat in a pointy hat.
- DVL (Disembodied Voice Lady) - A Disembodied Voice
Episode Two: Guardian
This episode opens with Tsukasa in a lightning storm saying, "No way..." and in spite of seeing the series many times I still have no idea to what he is referring. It cuts to him in the land of mountain and cloud where he tosses a fruit/vegetable/thing, to a baby grunty who morphs into an adult grunty, says he didn't want to grow up (he's a Toys 'Я Us* kid), this town doesn't need another adult, and then promptly leaves by walking upward at a 45 degree angle in spite of the lack of ground there. It's one of the odder forms of flying I've witnessed.
* How has Toys 'Я Us been around so long without being destroyed by the belief that they're secret communist infiltrators, look at that backwards R. Mandrake, do you know when Toys Я Us was first founded? Nineteen hundred and forty eight. How does that coincide with your post war commie conspiracy?
Tsukasa moves on, first walking by Bear who asks if he's read the BBS. Tsukasa hasn't, you can't read the BBS from inside the game, it's on a different part of the interwebs. He brushes of Bear rudely, then walks by Mimiru without acknowledging her existence (which was the terms of the deal on which the parted) and then Mimiru and Bear meet up.
Which gave me the opportunity to talk about responsibility. Specifically I think that Bear and Mimiru are the sort to respond to the ethics 101 question, "A man is drowning near the end of the dock; what is your responsibility?" by saying they'd save the person well before the question had finished being asked.
For here they are: having a, "What can we do about Tsukasa?" meeting when Tsukasa is someone who has done nothing but be rude to them. He's a person who they know to be in trouble, and that, it would seem, is enough. The fact he's an asshole (to them; thus far) doesn't enter into the equation.
After their first on camera "What can we do about Tsukasa?" meeting they separate with Bear noting that he'll be thinking on it for a while and telling Mimiru to call him if she needs anything.
Then we get to a part that I had some difficulty taking in order. Seriously. The post on it was one I considered to be on scenes 3 through 9 and I wrote it in the order of 4, 5, 7*, 3, 7, 5, 6, 8, 9 so ... yeah.
*Barely any 7 there, mostly I list it for completeness.
Regardless we meet a new character, Sora, learn why Tsukasa plays, hear about the not-Subaru founder of the Crimson Knights, and learn what little the Crimson Knights know at this point, and what they're doing.
Since this post is the short version, I'll just take things scene by scene and be quick about it.
First Scene of this section: BT is running in a desert area from someone who hops a lot, that being Sora. When she thinks she has her pursuer stuck so he has to go through a door she gets ready for a fight through that door, only to be surprised by Sora appearing right behind her. She spins but nothing is there. Sora disarms her with ease and gets her in a hold. He asks for her member address (the in-game equivalent of an email address) she refuses. Witty banter, he kills her.
Scene the next:
Subaru is on her boat getting a report. The knights are running surveillance on the chaos gates (each server has a root town, each root town a chaos gate, all travel is to, from, or between chaos gates.)
The Silver Knight is out of contact, whoever wrote the subtitles (and the dub for that matter) knew enough that a certain statement should be subjunctive, but not enough to know which tense it should be. (My post on the subjunctive here.) Also we learn that the Crimson Knights do not traditionally go off alone, to the extent that Subaru sees Silver Knight doing so as grandstanding.
A knight who tries to get Subaru not to hold it against the Silver Knight says that it's possible Silver Knight felt a rivalry towards Crim, the Crimson Knights' other co-founder who has since quit the knights. Subaru reflectively thinks on Crim and we move on to...
Scene after that:
Shift change or report time or something that has the Crimson Knights talking to each other about what has happened rather than watching what is happening at one of the chaos gates. Tsukasa shows up. He doesn't have enough time to log out/switch servers so they now know which server he's on and don't have to bother the other gates. They figure they'll catch him when he logs out.
Scene in which Tsukasa has nothing to do:
Tsukasa has been on the ground running his staff back and forth, creating a small rut in the red sand of the ground upon which he sits. After asking the empty air what he should do now, Macha (floating cat in pointy hat) appears before him.
Scene in which the Crimson Knights at the other gates are told they don't have to bother guarding them:
BT and Bear are talking about Sora, Bear thinks he sounds strange even by the standards of player killers. BT says she lost an hour of hard work and had to start over from where she saved the day before.
Bear says he suspects that Sora is trying to collect member addresses from attractive female player characters. They're having this conversation near the local chaos gate, guarded by two knights. When a third warps in BT asks if they should get help from them, Bear says he doesn't think it will help.
When the three knights warp out Bear's thoughts turn to Tsukasa:
Scene with Tsukasa.
The thing about floating cat in pointy hat is that she talks, but we can't hear her. Thus we have no idea what she's saying. Tsukasa can hear her, or understand her at least, so we get one side of a conversation:
Macha speaks.Scene the next:
Tsukasa: Yeah, this place used to be my hideout, but even in here I'm still running. It's terrible because all I want is to be alone and not be bothered by anyone.
Tsukasa: What? Is that true?
Tsukasa: Does a place like that really exist?
Tsukasa is venturing into a dungeon, Sora following at a distance and plotting, out loud, how he'll get the treasure then Tsukasa. First off, five points to Slytherin for Sora's use of zeugma, even though in theory he should have only used the word "get" once. Technically it's antanaclasis not zeugma. But zeugma sounds better so I'm going to pretend that it's a failed attempt at zeugma rather than sucessful antanaclasis.
(For those who don't know rhetoric, zeugma is when the same word has different meanings for different objects. So the "get" in "get the treasure" isn't the same as the "get" in "I'm going to get you," and if they're put together, "I'm going to get the treasure and you," that's zeugma. What Sora actually does is close to, "I'm going to get the treasure and get you," in which each "get" is being used in only a single way, and the two ways are quite different. That's antanaclasis. Which literally translates to "against-up-breaking", but means "reflection" for reasons that I don't pretend to understand.)
Anyway, Tsukasa surprises Sora by not going for the treasure chest. The treasure chest sits at the feet of a freestanding guardian statue, free standing means it's not touching the wall, Tsukasa goes to the wall behind it and placing his hand on the wall, walks through.
Sora rounds the statue moments later only to realize that Tsukasa has disappeared.
Tsukasa has stepped into Aura's domain; Bear, BT, and Mimiru have stepped into metaphysics.
And at around this point I ended up on an unplanned hiatus in writing this post that took five months to the day. So any changes in tone or style here: probably due to that. Though I will be going back to edit what came before where needed.
Tsukasa finds himself in a brightly lit place with a a white bed in an otherwise natural setting. Above the bed floats a sleeping young girl who lacks color but has ripples of rainbowiness running over her body, off on its own floats a teddy bear.
Meanwhile back at the root town Mimiru, BT, and Bear are having a, "Let's make sure everyone's up to date and on the same page," meeting. The only real new information comes from Bear which is that the Crimson Knights haven't seen Tsukasa since he ran away from them... yesterday. Meaning that he hasn't logged out or changed servers.
BT speculates that he simply reset his computer, but Mimiru and Bear are wondering if it's really possible that he can't log out which means its time for metaphysics. The short version is that if the only thing that is really real is the "real world" then BT would be completely right in saying that no one can get stuck in the game but that's not how things are. Tsukasa seems to be in the platonic ideal of the game which means he's outside of the realm of computers, programming, and the logic of pragmatic monist realist thinking.
DVL tells Tsukasa to contact Mimiru and I spent a whole post talking about the reasoning behind that. The reason being that it underlies a lot of what's going on in the show. Tsukasa wants to hide from the world, be isolated, and generally never do anything that risks getting hurt. DVL wants Tsukasa to crash and burn but that can't happen if he's already on the ground so she needs to build him up in order to knock him down. If things start looking too good she will slap him back down without hesitation, but in general, like a seagull with a mollusk, she needs to lift him up because otherwise there's no way she can shatter him on the rocks.
And... don't you think it's time to wrap up Episode 2?
Tsukasa is told that his Guardian will protect him, this is the first time that he learns the monster's name which is, for the record, the English word "Gaurdian" even though the native language of everyone in the show is Japanese (other names that are in English rather than Japanese: Bear, BT, Key of the Twilight.) He is also given the power to travel without using the Chaos Gate.
Sora finds out from some Crimson Knights that the depressed wavemaster he saw earlier (Tsukasa) probably is the one the Crimson Knights are looking for and concludes that he wants to be Tsukasa's friend. (Sora does not know how friendship works.) I took a bit of the post to talk about how nice it is to have characters, and the text itself, recognize that a depressed character is depressed and that this is a bad thing as compared to a thing like Twilight where depression is almost held up as an ideal.
And finally we have a meeting between Tsukasa, Bear, and Mimiru that goes disastrously wrong. Tsukasa learns that when the Guardian defeated the Silver Knight it left the player unconscious in front of his computer with no memory of what happened. (That memory does eventually return) Bear and Mimiru learn for sure that Tsukasa isn't in front of a computer. Tsukasa runs away after some arguing and the Guardian interprets Mimiru's attempt to get him to stay as an attack (maybe) and attacks in kind. The episode ends with Bear charging the Guardian, the Gaurdian firing spear-like goo at Bear, and Tsukasa and Mimiru looking on in horror.
Episode Three: Folklore
We emphatically do not pick up from where we left off.
The Silver Knight has logged back in and is talking to Subaru, we see friction between the two as the Silver Knight sees himself and the knights as system administration support (a role that does not, in fact, exist) and Subaru is quick to remind him they're players just like everyone else.
That gets us into our second mention of Crim, the knights' other co-founder who has now quit. Subaru gets angry when it's implied that she shares Crim's ideas but quickly calms down; it seems that while she disapproves of his ideas she bears him no animosity. Silver Knight reveals that he doesn't know why Crim left (he wonders if it might have been Subaru's disapproval but that is calmly, almost sadly, shot down.) Then Subaru leaves for an appointment.
Bear tells BT what happened at the end of the last episode, but does it off camera with the scene starting with her responding with disbelief. When BT points out what happened is systematically impossible Bear replies that Tsukasa transcends the system. At which point the topic changes and we get to the folklore.
There is, it seems, a rumor about the game. Not a rumor in the game where an NPC tells you something to set you on a quest, a rumor regarding the game. But the rumor is on the way out, it's faded in people's memories and because discussion of it was deleted in some places and, presumably, lost from the net in other ways in other places it's hard to get information on.
BT, coming to the game only recently, only has the most basic information:
1 A unique hidden item of some kind.
2 It can overturn the basic laws of the game. (Think Neo in the first Matrix movie when Morpheus is giving his "When you're ready, you won't have to.")
3 Nothing much else.
Subaru and Sora have a meeting where Sora brings up the Key of the Twilight (the name of the object BT has taken in interest in) and Subaru says it doesn't exist and walks away. Sora uses the threat of violence to get her to stay and chat.
Mimiru is sitting and thinking in the place that she first met Tsukasa when Bear comes to talk to her. She has no new information, and decides to stop being involved but even as she's saying she made that decision she can't actually make herself stop caring.
Tsukasa is with the floating sleeping girl. He haltingly reaches out to touch her but when his hand nears her he's thrown into a flashback. As a child he tried to nurse a kitten back to health with milk and an eyedropper. His father screws all of that up and takes away the kitten in a manner usually reserved for stinky refuse. Little Tsukasa is left slumped over in an alleyway despondent. Tsukasa snaps back to the present.
At this point DVL encourages him to do more of this, imbuing the girl, Aura, with his own color. That color being traumatized depressed person. I think this might be the first indication that DVL is evil. Non-evil disembodied voices don't try to imbue children with trauma and depression.
Regardless, DVL tells Tsukasa to do as he wishes and not to fear, for he will be protected. More of the building up in order to knock one down I was talking about.
Mimiru grinds on her own.
Subaru returns to Mac Anu, closely followed by Sora, whom she has decided to treat as a guest. Mostly because she needs more information at this point and so isn't willing to be dismissive of anything.
Tsukasa believes that he has trained the Guardian so that it will not go out of control like it did last episode. He contacts Mimiru to show her, but she doesn't want to see him at the moment. Bear utterly fails at dealing with depressed-kid's first success 101. In the end Mimiru is unable to stay away, but by then Bear's (self-admitted) failure has driven Tsukasa off.
Bear calls together Subaru, the Silver Knight, BT, and Sora for a meeting with Mimiru and himself. Bear had hoped to get Tsukasa's player information so he could see what was happening to Tsukasa's body while his conciousness was trapped in the game. It turned out that confidentiality made that impossible. Then Bear and Mimiru finally get around to telling what really happened in the confrontation in the end of Episode 2. (The cat in the pointy hat saved the day at the last moment then disappeared.)
Bear directs Subaru to look at the access logs. BT tricks Sora into letting her know the name of the rumored hidden item she's taken an interest in.
The episode ends with a scene of Tsukasa watching the sunset with his guardian.
Episode Four: Wanted
Rumors are flying around about Tsukasa, Subaru's looking into the log files reveals that Tsukasa has been logged in nonstop for ten days. Tsukasa is with the floating girl. He wonders aloud, "What happens if I dye her?" (recall he was told to imbue her with his own color.) He reaches toward her and then decides against it. DVL starts talking to him. She tells him that a wonderous world awaits where she, Tsukasa, and the floating girl can live forever in a place where worry and pain do not exist. When Tsukasa is justifiably skeptical of such a promise DVL indicates that she's the ghost of his mother.
Mimiru is waiting for Bear, she wants to talk to him about the rumors about Tsukasa. Bear doesn't show up. Instead BT does. And, being BT, she's insulting, dismissive, and generally only interested if the conversation can be used to get her something of value (it can't.)
Sora repeatedly messages Mimiru and BT and they eventually meet with him. He isn't with the knights but is rather in a place with mushrooms normal and giant. Sora reveals that he's hanging out with the knights because information is said to gather where the knights are. BT wants to know if Tsukasa has the Key of the Twilight and Sora, based on "instinct", says, "No, not yet."
Subaru and the Silver Knight discuss both what should be done about Tsukasa and what can be done about Tsukasa, with Subaru revealing that how Tsukasa does what he does is boggling the minds of even the system administration.
And that's where I left off, a few days more than 9 months ago. And this post was composed over god knows how long with a five month gap in the middle that ended yesterday.
The first was posted between the stuff on episodes 1 and 2, it addressed the question of why Tsukasa. Tsukasa was chosen, and definitely not at random. So: why? My argument is that Tsukasa was chosen because his isolation, his depression, his traumatic past, and so forth has set him up perfectly to be able to manipulated into the kind of firey crashing and burning that would result in him utterly failing in the role he was chosen to do.
Tsukasa is being set up to fail. He was chosen for this role because of 20 million people he managed to be the worst possible one to fulfill it.
The second, called "Why .hack//Sign matters," which is about EXACTLY what it says. There is a reason it's important to have fiction about depressed characters, that post is about why. There's a similar reason why it's important to have fiction about X characters for any value of X that human beings take on.